Enrichment Spending and Inequality

August 15, 2013

NYT(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times published the above chart last December here’s a link if you would like a better look. It basically shows that both college attendance and completion and private enrichment spending have been increasing at a much faster rate among wealthier students.

I find the enrichment spending trend particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, like Collin’s grit measure, it seems like an example of something that has been lurking in the error term of our limited understanding of K-12 trends.  I’m not sure how the authors define “enrichment spending” but $8,900 per year for well-to-do kids is striking.  How much does this matter? I’m not sure but I think it ought to be rigorously researched. It could matter quite a bit.

Four states have average family incomes for a family of four above six figures and one cannot help but wonder how much more this trend influences academic trends than in other states. Washington DC has been gentrifying strongly and has also had a large increase in the economic achievement gap despite large gains for low-income kids.  Could this trend be partially explained by this phenomenon?

What, if anything, is to be done about this? A vast increase in K-12 spending aimed at the cultural enrichment of poor children is not in the cards given the rotten state of state and federal finances, and it is just as well given the fact that the relationship between spending and outcomes is already hazy to say the least in the public school system. Just as a reminder, in the insightful words of Paul Hill:

Money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results.

The country is broke and even if we did raise taxes to punishing levels to fund this stuff no one should feel the least bit confident that enrichment spending would actually work if funnelled through the existing system. Jay’s idea about supplementing private summer camp attendance might be a better idea but again public finances are a total mess. This is currently in the private realm and it is necessary to keep it that way.

This would seem to leave us with at least few possibilities. Better use of technology may enhance the efforts of both public and private enrichment efforts. Khan Academy is doubtlessly one of the most powerful remedial education tools ever developed. It is free of charge and has branched out into the fine arts, and it is hardly alone. Sandra Day O’Connor has an online civics project for instance but I suspect that these efforts will require some concerted effort to realise their full potential. Putting them up online is a first crucial step, but one cannot help but to fear that their impact might be reminiscent of public libraries absent a sustained effort to get children to use them.

Fareed Zakaria summarizes the current debate on inequality, social mobility and schooling, but misses the crucial point.  The problem isn’t that we spend so little on the schooling of poor children but rather that we get so little for the massive amounts spent. American Black and Hispanic students score closer to the average score in Mexico (a nation that spends a fraction of what we do per pupil and which suffers from a much greater poverty problem) than to top performing scores. Using various policy mechanisms to increase ROI for K-12 spending runs you straight into reactionary resistance but it easily represents the most promising avenue for improving the prospects for disadvantaged children.

Oh, and by the way, as the New York Daily News kindly points out it does work.

PISA Results by Subgroup

January 17, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Hat Tip to Whitney Tilson for sending along this fascinating chart in his email blast today. This chart shows PISA data for 15 year olds (10th graders).

This serves as a Rorschach test. The usually reliable Robert Samuelson looks at this and says points out that American Anglos are pretty competitive.

Two problems: first from what we can tell from TIMMS, these numbers would probably look worse if we were examining 17 year olds (the U.S. has a large drop in rank between 8th and 12th grade).  Second, we are spending far beyond the OECD average on a per pupil basis, especially in the leafy suburbs, so our cost/achievement ratio still probably stinks, even for wealthy White kids.

The real story here is how much closer Hispanics and Blacks in America are to Mexico, the lowest scoring OECD country, than to an internationally competitive level.

Finland Sucks

December 7, 2010

Actually, I don’t really think so.  But if I were Diane Ravitch and looked at the trend in PISA for Finland as she looked at the trend in NAEP for New York City, I would see that Finland has declined in reading, math, and science.  And then I would (wrongly) conclude that Finland sucks and is doing things all wrong.

Table 5.1 Finland’s mean scores on reading, mathematics and science scales in PISA (p. 118)

PISA 2000 PISA 2003 PISA 2006 PISA 2009
Mean score Mean score Mean score Mean score
Reading 546 543 547 536
Mathematics 544 548 541
Science 563 554

Or perhaps if I really wanted to be like Diane Ravitch I would switch from looking at trends to levels of achievement, like when she looks at Massachusetts.  In that case, I would still think Finland is great and doing everything right.

Or maybe I could be like Diane Ravitch and switch to a different test that produced results more to my liking, like when Diane stopped paying attention to NAEP for New York City when it showed significant gains and started focusing instead on problems in the state test measures.

That’s the problem with being a manipulative propagandist.  It’s so hard to keep your story straight from one deception to another.

The TIMSS Rorschach Test

December 9, 2008

The Rorschach inkblot test is a psychology test that was used to assess personality and emotions.  The way in which people saw ambiguous images, like the one above, was supposed to say something about who they really were.

The same is true for the interpretations being applied to the results of the 2007 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) released today.

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli interprets the gains the US has made in math but not science as suggesting that accountability testing is shifting resources toward math and away from science: “The lesson is that what gets tested gets taught. Under the No Child Left Behind act, and state accountability systems before that, elementary schools have been held accountable for boosting performance in math and reading. There is evidence that American elementary schools are spending less time teaching science, and this is showing up in the international testing data.”

And Mike interprets the relatively good results that Minnesota had (yes, MN took the test as if it were a country) as supporting rigorous standards: “There’s also good news out of Minnesota today, which has made dramatic gains since adopting new, more rigorous math standards.”

But also at Flypaper, Diane Ravtich offers different interpretations.  She sees the gains even in math results as “actually small, only four points.”  She also declines to credit NCLB for any of those gains, even as a perverse result of resource shifting away from science.  She notes that gains were at least as large in the US during the period prior to implementation of NCLB.  And on the topic of Minnesota she takes issue with Mikes explanation for success: “Minnesota showed dramatic gains on TIMSS not because of ‘new, more rigorous standards,’ but because of that state’s decision to implement a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum in mathematics.”  Umm, I would explain the difference but I got so bored trying to distinguish standards from curriculum that I dozed off for a bit.

Rather than focusing on the gains (or lack of gains) made by the US relative to itself in the past, Mark Schneider at Education Week focuses on the comparison between the US and other countries.  He notes that while the US looks relatively strong on the TIMSS, that is distorted by the large number of  “low-performing countries in the calculation of the international average [including Jordan, Romania, Morocco, and South Africa that] drives down that average, improving the relative performance of our students.”

He further notes that we fare worse on the PISA, which reports results from the 30 OECD countries who are our major trading partners and economic competitors: “We do better in TIMSS than we do on PISA, but this is a function of the countries that participate in each, and we should not let the relatively good TIMSS results lull us into a false sense of complacency. Even in the relatively easier playing field of TIMSS, we are lagging far too many countries in overall math performance and in the performance of our best students.”

And at Huffington Post Gerald Bracey was able to offer his reaction to the results last week, before they were released.  He wrote: “It might be good to keep a few things in mind when considering the data:

1. The Institute for Management Development rates the U. S. #1 in global competitiveness.

2. The World Economic Forum ranks the U. S. #1 in global competitiveness.

3. The U. S. has the most productive workforce in the world.

4. “The fact is that test-score comparisons tell us little about the quality of education in any country.” (Iris Rotberg, Education Week June 11, 2008).

5. ‘That the U. S., the world’s top economic performing country, was found to have schooling attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts on the value, and approach, of these surveys…'”

Bracey also said that our students could beat up the students in other countries with higher TIMSS scores.  (Actually, I made that last bit up.)

To summarize, Mike Petrilli sees evidence supporting his past concerns about the narrowing of the curriculum and the need for rigorous standards.  Diane Ravitch sees no evidence to alter her negative view of NCLB.  Mark Schneider, the former head of the National Center for Education Statistics, sees the need to review more testing.  And Gerald Bracey doesn’t even have to see the results to know that our education system is doing a great job.  And when I look at the inkblot I see a pudgy guy with a beard and male-patterned baldness laughing.

(edited for clarity)